‘In conch-shell’: A Conchology of Form and Self in the Poetry of H. D., Marianne Moore, and Amy Lowell

30 September 2021

Anya Reeve, University of Oxford

I don’t know where I should like to live unless in a nautilus shell.[1]

‘Verses were the murex’, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes in her novel Palimpsest (1926).[2] The character of Raymonde – moving through a sea of imbricated, recursive prose, towards the concrete form of her poetry – is here describing the act of setting into verse.[3] To do so, she invokes the image of the murex, a marine mollusc encased in a spiny shell. This sense of versification as murex-like incipiently suggests a wider theme: the surprisingly profound valency of conchology (the study of land and marine molluscs’ shells) within the corpuses of the associated poets H.D., Marianne Moore and Amy Lowell. For all three, seashells and snails’ shells are invested with a symbolic and formal potency, particularly in their architectonic figuration as habitable spaces. ‘We speak of our houses, of our “shells”’, Moore aptly summates.[4] Shells are employed within this female and queer milieu to express the status of the poet; articulate the poet’s practice; and, at times, lend conceptual or formal shape and texture to the individual poem itself.

Imagine that set out before you are a series of taxonomical boxes, each of which yielding a distinct shell. The first shell is defined by its compactness and overriding intensity of interiority. This Specimen A might be identified as the insular ‘shell’ which H.D. describes as like a ‘small coptic temple’ in her poem ‘The Poet’ (dated sometime c. 1931-1938), the poet-figure who inhabits it working ‘alone in the desert’.[5] Alternatively, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944) sustains this architectonic interiority of the crafted shell when H.D. writes of the ‘oyster, clam, mollusc’ as each a ‘master-mason planning | the stone marvel’, the ‘hermit | within’ ensconced within a ‘limit[ed]’ ‘orbit’.[6] But Specimen A could equally be said to have the characteristic conchological ‘compression’ and ‘[c]ontractility’ of Moore’s ‘To a Snail’ (1935), or could be identified with the protective calcite shell-‘fortress’ of Moore’s ‘The Paper Nautilus’ (1941).[7] Already, from the number of potential candidates listed for Specimen A, it should be apparent that H.D. and Moore are both interested in an overall privileging of conchiferous compactness and interiority: shells as contracted abodes, with the poet dwelling safely within.[8] It is the poet’s potential ‘self-out-of-self’ product – perhaps a banded ‘pearl-of-great-price’ (The Walls Do Not Fall), or comparable ‘eggs’ (‘The Paper Nautilus’) – which is lastingly exteriorised.[9]

Specimen A may have arisen out of an impulse towards ‘self-protectiveness’.[10] It could be a trauma response in The Walls Do Not Fall, the shattered houses of both world wars in some small way productively addressed by the carefully shell-protected ‘master-mason’. It might be the response of the poet to a hostile literary establishment: ‘I suppose there is nothing for it but a shell of water-tight and fool proof M[arianne] Moore variety’, H.D. wrote to her partner Bryher [Ellerman] in a letter addressing recent criticism of her work.[11] There is perhaps a psychoanalytic awareness, with the ego’s mollusc-like negotiation of introversion and extraversion indicated by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; Jung wrote of the introverted self ‘creep[ing] still deeper into his shell.’[12] The inversion of the inner-dwelling mollusc further could be said to reflect something of queerness, of Havelock Ellis’ contemporaneous notion of the ‘sexual invert’. H.D. was a personal acquaintance of the author of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928), a series including the famous Volume II on non-heteronormative desire titled Sexual Inversion (1900). In 1919, Ellis met with H.D. and Bryher, and ‘[t]hroughout her second pregnancy, H.D. consulted with Ellis, especially in regard to his study of sexuality and creativity’.[13] For an individual who consulted Freud expressly about her being a ‘perfect bi –’ and her related historic urge to ‘HIDE’, the entity ‘living within’ for reasons of self-preservation is feasibly queer.[14] Even in reflecting on her sessions with Freud, H.D. writes of the ‘spiral-like meanderings of my mind and body’ – breaking away from a heteronormative linearity – and ‘the curled involuted or convoluted shell skull, and inside the skull, the curled, intricate, hermit-like mollusk’.[15]

Specimen B, however, diverges from the self-enclosed interiority of Specimen A: it is one half of a scallop shell, otherwise known as a single bivalve, so an instance of unapologetic exteriority. It is Lowell’s declarative homoromantic vision of her female lover stood atop said bivalve: ‘Venus Transiens’ (1919). Here the walls do fall. Lowell’s preference for such a robust, bold conchological styling is registered in further poems like ‘Quincunx’ (1919) and ‘Sea Shell’ (1912), and in her eviscerating satire A Critical Fable (1922), Lowell even finds living hermit-like within a shell a ripe image by which to criticise the pedantic timidity of T. S. Eliot: ‘Eliot lives like a snail in his shell, pen protruding.’[16] The immediate irony, though, is that A Critical Fable was published by Lowell anonymously; an instance of what H.D. might describe as ‘being true | to the irony | of your shell’.[17] For, despite her rejection of an enclosing shell in ‘Venus Transiens’ and A Critical Fable, Lowell was regardless invested in the shell as aesthetic object and formal model, and her very adoption of a more extraverted persona has been read in protective shell-like terms. In a reanimation of H.D. and Moore’s calcareous armour, the biographer Jean Gould writes that ‘many never did know’ Lowell possessed ‘a highly intense, nerve-wracked, and passionate nature, inwardly, if not outwardly, extremely fragile and sensitive.’[18] In Lowell a ‘sensitive’ inner-dwelling self is protected still, albeit by the differing shell of robust extraversion.

The delineated sense of ‘poetic conchology’ has a grounding in actual biological study and categorisation for the three poets concerned. H.D. and Moore even considered science as a possible vocation, and whilst H.D. ultimately found the most rigorous level of ‘biological-mathematical definition’ ‘untenable’, Moore was so comfortable with taxonomy that she became something of a literal practicing conchologist.[19] Amongst the contents of Moore’s Greenwich Village living room – held and catalogued by the Rosenbach Museum – reside hundreds of seashells and snails’ shells, with some grouped or placed alone in boxes as would befit an organising scientist.[20] Moore also executed a pencil study of a shell, likely a Charonia tritonis, upon which she recorded its size (12 x 5 1/4 inches).[21] The extent of Moore’s conchological interest enables a precise Specimen C: her wentletrap shell of a poem, ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”’ (1956).

The wentletrap – here, specifically ‘China’s precious wentletrap’ – is a marine mollusc which bears a pointed, spiralling and protrusively ribbed shell.[22] The name “wentletrap” is Dutch in origin, meaning ‘winding stair, spiral shell’; Moore cites an etymology of ‘winding staircase’ and provides a diagram in her notes.[23] The poet toys with the established conceit, opening the piece with the directive ‘[u]p winding stair’.[24] ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”’ tangibly occupies the form of the wentletrap shell, becoming a typographically spirulate staircase through indentation and line length. The poem’s lines which extend like ribbing correlate with the wentletrap’s characteristic, highly defined ribs, which are ‘usually white’[25] and appear like ‘steps’ – thus, the ‘flights of marble stairs’. In the middle stanza of the poem, there is a ‘peculiar catacomb’ of ‘abalonean gloom’; a journey to the centre of the shell. Even the notion towards the end of the poem of ‘[t]rapper Love’ refers back to “trap” in its sense of a ladder or stairs, connecting meaningfully with the earlier ‘hasty hop | or accomplished mishap’ up said stairs and the nomenclature of the wentletrap.[26] The poem is the conchologist Moore at her most joyfully taxonomical.

A shell is in some way bidirectional in its encapsulation of opposites – inner versus outer; calcareous roughness and hardness versus smooth, pearly inner nacre – and so suits innovative, searching and playful explorations of poetic form and texture.[27] This same bidirectional capability additionally enables H.D., Moore and Lowell to explore and express aspects of selfhood: namely, alternately introverted and extraverted responses to the concomitant creative and social ventures of being a female poet in the period, and to one’s own queerness.

Image Credit / Caption: Pencil study of a shell by Marianne Moore (pencil on paper, 28 August 1936), Moore XIII:03:10, Marianne Moore Collection, the Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia.


[1] Marianne Moore, ‘To John Warner Moore’ (November 13, 1910), The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, ed. B. Costello, C. Goodridge and C. Miller (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), p. 86.

[2] Hilda Doolittle, (H.D.), ‘Murex’, Palimpsest (Paris: Contact Editions, 1926), p. 226.

[3] Rachel Murray writes of the ‘densely woven, reticulated style’ and employment of ‘strategies of repetition’ within H.D.’s prose, postulating that ‘Raymonde’s shift from prose to poetry might be said to resemble a transition from a cocooned state of traumatised ‘half thought’ to the ‘crystalline’ lucidity represented by this spiky marine exoskeleton’. In ‘Cocoon States: H.D.’, The Modernist Exoskeleton: Insects, War, Literary Form (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), pp. 97, 106-107.

[4] Moore, ‘Like Bertram Dobell, You Achieve Distinction by Disclaiming It’, The Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. G. Schulman (New York: Viking, 2003), p. 63.

[5] Louis L. Martz places the poem within a section headed ‘Miscellaneous Poems 1931-1938 (?)’. H.D., ‘The Poet’, H.D.: Selected Poems, ed. L. L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), pp. 114, 115.

[6] H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 11.

[7] Moore, ‘To a Snail’ and ‘The Paper Nautilus’, The Poems of Marianne Moore, p. 174, p. 239.

[8] ‘[Moore’s] imagination always tended to orientate itself towards images of reserved space, where an outer shell or surface could offer protection or covering.’ Linda Anderson, ‘Paper Replicas: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore’, Elizabeth Bishop: Lines of Connection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 27.

[9] The Walls Do Not Fall, p. 12; ‘The Paper Nautilus’, p. 238. Susan Gubar writes of the pearl in The Walls Do Not Fall as artful poetic product and makes a connection between the poem’s protective shell and Moore’s ‘To a Snail’, directing the reader in the footnote to Suzanne Juhasz’s chapter on Moore’s armouring instinct in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition (1976). In ‘The Echoing Shell of H. D.’s “Trilogy”’, Contemporary Literature, 19, 2 (Spring) (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 200.

[10] ‘Like Bertram Dobell, You Achieve Distinction by Disclaiming It’, p. 63.

[11] H.D., letter to Bryher dated 13 May 1936, H.D. Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

[12] Carl Jung, ‘4. Psychological Typology’, ‘Appendix: Four Papers on Psychological Typology’, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. G. Adler and R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 6 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 551.

[13] Robin Pappas, ‘H.D. and Havelock Ellis: Popular Science and the Gendering of Thought and Vision’, Women’s Studies, 38, 2 (2009), available at: <https://doi.org/10.1080/00497870802633301> [accessed 1 September 2021], p. 152.

[14] H.D., letter to Bryher dated 24 November 1934, H.D. Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The mention of ‘living within’ from The Walls Do Not Fall, p. 12.

[15] H.D., ‘Writing on the Wall’, Tribute to Freud (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), pp. 44, 90.

[16] Anonymous [att. Amy Lowell], A Critical Fable (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922), p. 91.

[17] ‘The Poet’, p. 114.

[18] Jean Gould, ‘The Road Taken’, AMY: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975), p. 174.

[19] H.D., HERmione (New York: New Directions, 1981), pp. 5-6.

[20] See, for example, the archival description for catalogue number 2006.2904.002, which states: ‘[o]ne of two mussel shells found in a small jewelry [sic] box atop a cotton pad’, implying their careful and separate preservation. ‘Shell’, catalog number 2006.2904.002, Marianne Moore Collection, Rosenbach Museum, available at: < https://rosenbach.pastperfectonline.com/webobject/0B4861B6-9161-4150-B1CD-424007501642 > [accessed 2 September 2021].

[21] My thanks to the staff at the Rosenbach Museum for locating the sketch, ascertaining details about it and scanning it. The speculative attribution of Charonia tritonis, which is plausible to my eye, is made in Marianne Moore Newsletter, 2, 2 (Fall) (Philadelphia: Philip H. and A. S. W. Rosenbach Foundation, 1978), inside cover.

[22] Moore, ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”’, Like a Bulwark (New York: Viking Press), p. 21.

[23] “wentletrap, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, available at: <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/227823> [entry first published 1926, accessed 1 September 2021]; Moore, notes on ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”, Like a Bulwark, p. 31.

[24] ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”’, p. 21.

[25] Notes on ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”, p. 31.

[26] ‘Logic and “The Magic Flute”’, pp. 21-22.

[27] See Gaston Bachelard on ‘the contradictions of the shell, which at times is so rough outside and so soft, so pearly, in its intimacy’. In ‘Shells’, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 115.

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